We often talk about struggling farmers or underappreciated coffee workers in our blogs. As much as we’d like it to just be a trope, it’s an issue in many of the places that produce coffee around the world. And, today, we get to talk about El Salvador, a country that was once a darling of specialty coffee and progress. Now, it is a country struggling to deal with issues from gang violence to lack of government support to poverty. Like we said, we wish it was just a trope, but when you visit farms and are picked up in bulletproof cars (this happened to me twice), and citizens are afraid of going into certain areas/towns due to criminal activity, you get a real sense for the difficult situation that’s going on here.
Coffee pickers weigh the cherries they've picked throughout the day @ Los Pirineos.
So, El Salvador. It’s a country that just 40 years ago, saw about 50% of its gross domestic product come from coffee exports. Now, it’s a fraction of that. Civil war fractured the infrastructure. Other countries (primarily Brazil and Vietnam) grew exponentially in volume, forcing the national price of coffee downward. In the last decade or so, that price continued to drop, and struggles with both disease (coffee rust, just to name one), climate change (there’s been drought for five of the six last years), and political unrest. It has led to up to 30% of coffee farmers literally abandoning and walking away from their farms.
A view of the drying beds and patios at Los Pirineos.
With all this tumult, it’s awe-inspiring to see a coffee producer in this climate making a go of it. And, it’s never easy for these folks. Such is the case with Gilberto Baraona, owner of Los Pirineos Farm and Mill in Usulatán, El Salvador. Baraona, a 4th generation coffee farmer, has lived through the civil war and what the country has endured since. His family farm is in the east of the country, beyond the civil war line. In fact, during the civil war, Gilberto had to abandon the farm and found refuge in Guatemala.
Gilberto, in front of a lot of honey process coffee resting on a raised bed.
What inspires me most about Gilberto is his optimism and focus on growth and new relationships. He’s spent years looking for the right opportunity to re-invest in his farm. When coffee rust hit El Salvador, he took the blow in stride, slowly replacing his plants with newer ones that were healthier and more resistant to the disease. When rainfall was at an all-time low (due to climate change), he constructed a rain reservoir to conserve water throughout the year. When coffee prices fell, he invested in new types of processing (honey, natural, shaded raised beds, etc.) and looked for other new ways to innovate. Not to mention, he has a coveted variety garden on his farm, with near 100 different varieties of coffee growing there.
A nursery of new plants ready to head out to the fields @ Los Pirineos
For this lot, we chose a fully washed Pacamara from one of the newly renovated areas of the farm. The Pacamara variety is more resistant to rust but is cultivated for its characteristic bright and citrusy flavor. When you look at the beans, you’ll see that they’re noticeably larger than other coffee beans. In the cup, you’ll get a full palate of flavor. Up front, you’ll notice a bright, citrusy, cherry-like and caramel mouthfeel. As it rests on your palate, you’ll start to notice a unique herbal characteristic that is slightly reminiscent of hops.
We love this new offering from Los Pirineos. We hope you will as well.
To consumers, coffee can seem foreign and exotic. It’s a bean that’s cultivated thousands of miles away by some coffee farmer before it’s roasted to perfection. Then, an expert barista gets her hands on it and extracts the best flavors. The taste offers a pure sense of enjoyment from the crisp aromatics and flavor compounds in your cup.
But, for some of us, we experience a bit more than just the flavor in the cup. We renew our relationship with our producer who put their year’s work into the beans. It’s not just “grapefruit and caramel,” it’s Deyner’s family’s coffee.
Deyner Fallas-Mora, our friend and part of the amazing family at Cerro Verde Micromill.
That’s how I feel about coffees from the friends I’ve made while sourcing over the years. I’d like to tell you a little bit more about how I met the family that owns Cerro Verde, and why this relationship is so important to me. This is one of my all-time favorite coffees—it’s consistently delicious, and you can really taste the hard work that goes into it. When I taste it, I can see the people behind it and the memories from the time I’ve spent there.
My first coffee sourcing trip ever was to Costa Rica back in early 2013. When you visit one of THE places that grows coffee—the thing you’re so passionate about—you feel like a kid in a candy store. We met up with an amazing exporter who served as the platform for over 80+ micromills showcasing their coffee. I spent three days visiting over 25 different micromills and was awed by the complexity, consistency, and sustainability these producers had built.
Sidebar: A micromill is literally a small mill—a machine used to remove coffee cherry and fruit off the parchment/beans). It’s not in a regional facility. This is on their own farm and allows them to fine tune smaller batches of cherry into specific “microlots.” So, a day of picking—or even a day’s harvest from part of the farm—may be considered its own “micro” lot. Micromills are expensive to set up, so you either need a way to finance it, or you need to have earlier investment capital. If coffee farmers could all own their own micromill, they probably would.
This is the Fallas-Mora family micromill at Cerro Verde.
Back to our trip. On our third day, we drove through the mountainous area of Tarrazu. Late in the day, we stopped and met with a new micromill looking for more exposure, since they were new to selling coffee in the specialty market. This mill was Cerro Verde. Their mill was exquisite, as was the view from the top of the farm. Knowing what I knew at the time (and admittedly, it wasn’t much) I wanted to partner with them. I knew there were some risks, but I also wanted to observe the growth of a new mill (I was a new roaster, and it seemed like a cool symbiotic relationship).
It's a jaw dropping view from the Cerro Verde Micromill.
Cerro Verde is owned by the Fallas-Mora family who also owns a few small plantations. This is a family farm through and through, especially during the heart of harvest season. Their mill is cleverly tucked into the hillside around their house, and family members take up stations during the picking and milling process (from skimming “floaters” to picking out defects by hand in the drying beds).
I worked with this family for four years, buying a handful of different lots from both of their farms at the time (Concepcion and San Francisco) and learning about their improvements in picking and processing. Each time I went back, they had something new they were working on. And, every time I visited, I was welcomed to a meal like I was family. I remember brewing their coffee using a Chemex they had purchased. I could brew their coffee for them. It was special.
I left my position at the company that I was with, and, unfortunately, I don't think that relationship stuck. But Cerro Verde was still important to me. So, I reached out to Deyner on Facebook (because that’s how we communicate these days) and asked if he was interested in working together on a coffee again. I can’t buy the volume that I used to (Mission is much smaller), but having that relationship back is something important. And, when we cupped their coffee, it was like catching up with an old friend—and we were able to pick up right where we left off.
Honey process coffee drying on beds overlooking Finca San Francisco @ Cerro Verde.
The lot that we chose is a yellow honey process from Finca Concepcion. This coffee is a mix of older and newer trees and mixed varieties (Caturra, Catuai, Villa Sarchi). Yellow honey means that they leave a portion of the fruit on the outside of the coffee during the milling process. Not only does it save on water, but, if dried appropriately, it will impart a lingering sweetness. (We call it “honey” because it looks like someone dumped sticky, goopy stuff all over it). This coffee is dried on raised beds for 14–21 days to ideal moisture.
In the cup, you get a sweet, caramel-flavored, and dried-fruit mouth feel from the honey process. You’ll get notes of white grape and lush caramel. The Villa Sarchi adds just a smidge of grapefruit-like acidity, but this coffee is really balanced towards the sweet and lush body.
This is one of my favorite coffees ever. I hope you’ll take the time and enjoy it, and taste the hard work of the Fallas-Mora family.